April Letter from Durden (our adopted penguin)

What a lovely few weeks we have had, just floating around in the open ocean resting
and eating. We haven’t come ashore for over a month and I have put on 2 kg in
weight. The ocean has everything we need. Whenever we are hungry we just dive
down beneath the waves and look for fish to catch. We sleep floating on the surface
of the water, we bathe in the water, and we play in the water. Penguins are always
happiest in the water. But now we are back on land because we have to change
all our feathers.

Feathers are just like clothes. As they get older they become damaged and tatty,
and have to be changed. Feathers are very important for us. Not only do they
work like clothes to stop us getting cold on land, but they also form a waterproof
barrier that keeps the freezing water away from our skin.

Each feather is very small. but it has tiny little hooks that cause it to lock
into place with the surrounding feathers, just like Velcro. Hundreds of thousands
of these tiny feathers link together one on top of the other, like tiles on a
house roof, and we apply wax to the feathers so that they are completely waterproof.
Not only do the feathers keep us warm, but they also stop the cold seawater from
touching our skin. Despite spending days in the water, we always remain dry under
our feathers. They act like a human wet suit, the black rubber suits that divers
use to keep warm.

The wax we use to waterproof our feathers is produced by a gland near our tail,
and we have to take the wax in our beak and spread it over the feathers every
day to keep the feathers in good condition. That is why penguins and other birds
spending so much time preening their feathers. The preening spreads the wax evenly
over the feathers and helps the feathers to hook together properly.

If you get a chance to see ducks on a pond, watch how the water runs off the
duck’s back. This is due to the waxy feathers that stop the duck from getting
wet, even when it lives in the water. And when the ducks are resting onshore,
watch how they spend long periods of time preening their feathers.

But once a year we must change all our feathers for new ones. Birds that don’t
live in freezing cold seawater do this over a period of several weeks, without
loosing their ability to fly, but penguins cannot do that. It is very important
that the feathers keep the freezing cold seawater away from our skin when we
are swimming in the ocean, or we would die from the cold. If our feathers began
falling out, it would be like a builder removing some of the tiles off the roof.
The water would get in, and that would be bad for us.

So we must change all our feathers all at once. That way the change is much faster,
but the bad news is that we cannot go into the water during the change. And because
we eat fish which live in the ocean, it also means we cannot eat anything whilst
we are ashore changing the feathers. The annual molt is not a happy time for
us.

It takes about 4 weeks for the old feathers to fall out and the new ones to grow
back. That means a month with no food, a month standing about on shore with nothing
to do, and a month of itchy skin. And as if that is not bad enough, then take
a look at the photo I have sent you. The molt also means looking like a soft
toy that a dog has been chewing.

There are so many penguins on shore shedding their feathers that it looks like
it has been snowing. There is usually lots of noise in the colony with thousands
of penguins all living close together, but not at the moment. The colony is silent.
Nobody has anything to say. Everybody is feeling miserable, hungry and itchy
like I do.

The good news is that the molt will be over in about 4 weeks, and then we all
get to go on our annual vacation to Brazil. Four months of sun, rest and tropical
fish. Fantastic! I will write to you again when we are on our way to Brazil.

Lots of love from Durden

Image

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